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Classical music

Pianist Yuja Wang on the challenge of chamber music, and how to fit into her dress after two weeks of Hong Kong food

Pianist known for her striking attire shrugs off criticism of her fashion choices and prefers to talk about music – her love of chamber repertoire, trying out conducting – and how she chills out between engagements

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 11:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 9:09pm

Sitting at a piano in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Yuja Wang is in her element. Not only is she in a concert hall where she has performed with renowned conductors and orchestras, but also a tight little black number and a pair of Christian Louboutin stilettos that ooze confidence and sexiness – part of her public persona.

The Beijing-born, New York-based pianist is in Hong Kong for a two-week residency which teams her once again with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and its music director, Jaap van Zweden, for a total of five concerts.

Having already dazzled audiences with her performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which opened the orchestra’s new season last weekend, Wang will be performing a concert of chamber music with three of the ensemble’s players – violinist and concertmaster Jing Wang, violist Andrew Ling and cellist Richard Bamping – on Wednesday.

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On the programme are Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, and Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, both among Wang’s favourite chamber music pieces.

“It’s two of the most passionate chamber music pieces and also very challenging for piano. I tend to choose those – the ones that are almost like a piano solo,” says the 30-year-old.

“Oh my god,” she exclaimed earlier during a rehearsal as she tackled a particularly difficult passage in the piano trio, and breathed a sigh of relief at the end.

“I love Tchaikovsky’s music. It’s very simple, direct, but it really goes to the heart,” says Wang.

This is particularly true of the piano trio, subtitled “In Memory of a Great Artist”, which the Russian composer wrote while mourning the death of his mentor and close friend, pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.

Brahms’ Piano Quartet, on the other hand, is lighter in tone.

“I love Brahms, mostly because of his chamber music, and this is the most fun, almost very festive piece. The last movement is gypsy-like and it has the most beautiful melodies,” says the pianist.

After Hong Kong, Wang’s schedule is lined with exciting projects, including her first recital tour in South America next summer, and her season opening concerts with conductor Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic, playing Prokofiev, in April.

I’m always very good – not in real life – but when I play music, I’m a good listener. For me, that’s just a continuation of how I see music and how I listen to music conceptually
Yuja Wang

Before that, she will perform early Beethoven works with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in November, when she will take a crack at playing and conducting simultaneously.

“You really need to, I imagine, know the orchestra part really well, rather than just playing my part,” says Wang. “For me, playing [and conducting] concertos is like playing chamber music. It’s all about listening, how to respond and communicate through music.

“I’m always very good – not in real life – but when I play music, I’m a good listener. For me, that’s just a continuation of how I see music and how I listen to music conceptually.”

While Wang is fully booked until 2020, the classical artist is now paying more attention to self-care by taking breaks in between each engagement.

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“Now I’m doing two weeks on and two weeks off,” says Wang. “That’s almost, if not more, important than playing in the concerts. It’s like a muscle workout; afterwards you need to relax for the muscles to recuperate.”

Though the free time might just be spent idling or “watching a whole day of Netflix”, the breaks are essential for Wang to get back in her element.

“It’s really important ... to do something that makes me happy, and to intake some joy and give it out again when I give concerts,” says Wang, who uses tennis players as an analogy. “They say the difference between tennis players, the good ones and the great ones, is what they do between the sets – how they rest.”

While her fashion choices – Wang is certainly not afraid to show off some skin; who can forget that skimpy orange dress she wore for a Hollywood Bowl concert in 2011? – have drawn as much attention as her musical talents, Wang remains unfazed by what other people think.

“I’m completely immune to it. It’s like I got a shot from it after 10 years,” says Wang, who tries to match her outfit with the music, the atmosphere and, sometimes, even the architecture of the concert hall, such as when she donned a blue sequinned dress for her performance at the Elbphilharmonie, a new concert hall in Hamburg whose design is inspired by the seabed.

As for Wednesday’s chamber music concert, she has not made up her mind what to wear, but the choice may be a little trickier than usual.

“Such good food [in Hong Kong]. The only thing is I always gain weight. So by the end of the second week, it’s hard to fit into my dress,” she says.

Yuja Wang & Friends: A Chamber Night, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Sept 6, 8pm, HK$280-HK$680